October 27, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Imagine that it’s 1967, and you’ve just come out of a theater showing For a Few Dollars More, the Sergio Leone spaghetti Western starring Clint Eastwood. Either you’ve enjoyed it as a sly, mythic take on horse-opera conventions or, more likely, you’ve concurred with the conventional critical wisdom of the day, summed up in a Newsweek review that calls Dollars ”excruciatingly dopey.”

Now imagine that the sidewalk parts and a little guy who looks like Poindexter from the Felix the Cat cartoons appears. He informs you that in 28 years the nearly mute star of the badly dubbed splatterfest you’ve just watched will be considered an elder statesman of the cinema, will be a director of vivid, evocative works that are just this side of art-house fare, will have won every plaudit of the film industry — and will be the subject of a CD-ROM career overview so rich that it immediately becomes a standard-bearer of the medium.

You haven’t heard of CD-ROM in 1967, of course. Even so, the rest sounds completely absurd, so you squash Poindexter like a bug and get on with your life.

You would have been within your rights too: Back then, Eastwood merely represented pop culture’s most violent, Neanderthal extreme. But pop culture has itself grown more violent in the intervening three decades, while Clint Eastwood the movie icon has grown more complex. The genius of EASTWOOD (Starwave, CD-ROM for Windows 95, $50) is that it honors the gradual sense of breadth and depth that became apparent as the actor’s career rolled on.

Everything about this project is as outsize as the man it profiles — from its two discs to the fire-snorting PC you’d better own if you want to experience it. Not only is Windows 95 necessary, but you can’t even install Eastwood if your PC’s speed is slower than 486/66 MHz. You wouldn’t want to, either: I tested Eastwood on a Pentium PC, and even there load times between sections dragged on for finger-drumming eternities.

If your computer’s up to snuff, though — and if you’re feeling lucky, punk — Eastwood is a bottomless delight. The first thing you notice is its lush look: You’re deposited in a ripely colored movie-theater lobby where the star’s 53 films (up through Bridges of Madison County) are organized into six categories: ”Early Years,” ”Cops,” ”Westerns,” ”Backroads and Barrooms,” ”Man of Action,” and ”Behind the Camera.” Each category is depicted as a sprawling mural studded with visual elements from specific films (the immovable boulder from Pale Rider, the Halloween mask from A Perfect World, and so forth). Clicking on each element takes you to a generous helping of clips, reviews (not always favorable), credits, and a montage featuring the star’s own commentary on that particular movie. (While Eastwood did not directly oversee the production of the disc, he contributed materials and audio and video interviews.)

While hopscotching through Eastwood’s oeuvre this way is no substitute for seeing the films, it’s an illuminating trip. There are the signal films such as Dirty Harry, of course, but I’d forgotten about some of the winners (Escape From Alcatraz, Breezy) and outright duds (Firefox, White Hunter Black Heart), and Eastwood’s Westerns — from the Leone trilogy to The Outlaw Josey Wales to Unforgiven — look better and better with time. The ”Early Years” section may be the most fun: Clips of young Clint in Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula are almost as goofy as his guest shot on Mr. Ed and an appearance in a relentlessly mod Italian comedy called Witches.

The movie section may be Eastwood’s meat, but even the side dishes contribute to a project that, unlike so many star-centered CD-ROMs, actually increases one’s interest in the subject. There’s a trivia puzzle that’s surprisingly knotty and that, unsurprisingly, has no patience for wrong guesses. And there’s a time line with ”live” graphics that lead to such fortuitous finds as home movies of Clint clowning with his first wife, clips of him on The Tonight Show, gargly sound snippets from cowboy songs he recorded in the 1960s, and filmed interviews with the current Clint: weatherbeaten, relaxed, majestic in his perspective.

Eastwood’s not picture perfect: Installing it coughed up at least one bug on my system, the sound mysteriously popped in and out, and it would be nice if the spaghetti-Western clips were shown in all their wide-screen glory. But the details — evocative music, witty animations, opulent design — make up for the patchy spots, and the project’s respectful tone stops refreshingly short of adulation. Because Eastwood remembers that time when none of us took the man seriously, its classy, thoughtful long view plays like elegant revenge. A

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